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Federal

Jul 31, 2012

Chris Graham: Brough is back, with a record of failure

There's a broad expectation that Mal Brough will walk straight back into the ministry if he wins Fisher. And there's widespread fear in black Australia that the portfolio will be Aboriginal affairs.

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The best predictor of someone’s future behaviour is their past behaviour. Which means that with Mal Brough winning pre-selection for the federal seat of Fisher, Parliament is in for a sideshow the likes of which it hasn’t seen since … well, since 2007.

There’s a broad expectation that Brough will walk straight back into the ministry if he wins Fisher. And there’s widespread fear in black Australia that the portfolio will be Aboriginal affairs, given Brough’s boys own adventure in 2007 with the Northern Territory intervention.

I think the fear is misplaced. Brough today is about as popular with his colleagues as a refugee at a Liberal Party convention. And he was a pretty terrible minister for indigenous affairs to boot. With that in mind, it’s worth revisiting some of the policy disasters over which Brough presided during the Howard years.

Destination anywhere

The Community Development Employment Program — aka the black work for the dole — was designed and run by Aboriginal people, and had been chugging away relatively successfully for more than three decades.

Enter Brough, who decided in 2006 that CDEP had become a “destination” rather than a “path to real employment”. He began abolishing CDEP in remote regions, despite the fact CDEP was the ONLY source of employment in impoverished towns, not to mention the major funder of basic services. Aboriginal unemployment when Brough left office was at near record levels.

Who wants a home?

In 2007, Brough decided Aboriginal people were at risk of becoming communists because they couldn’t purchase their own homes on collectively owned Aboriginal land in remote areas. So, after amending the Aboriginal Land Rights Act in the NT, Brough unveiled the Home Ownership on Indigenous Lands program (HOIL), a government-funded scheme aimed at helping blackfellas buy a plot of land they already owned.

He quarantined $100 million in government funding for HOIL while at the same time underfunding the highly successful Home Ownership Program (which enabled Aboriginal people anywhere in the country to access home loans). HOP’s waiting list blew out exponentially while money sat locked in the HOIL program.

Finally, after five years of operation, Brough’s HOIL was quietly shelved and the money diverted into HOP. The HOP waiting list dropped instantly from 1,500 to just over 400 — that’s more than 1000 Aboriginal families into home ownership almost overnight. And the cost of Brough’s HOIL adventure? Some $10 million to administer a program that provided just 15 loans worth $2.7 million.

Stashing cash while Rome burns

Brough spent much of his time as minister pounding the state and territory Labor governments for their poor performance on indigenous affairs. A good thing, too. But at the same time, in 2006-07 his department underspent the Indigenous Affairs budget by a staggering $600 million, one-fifth of the total budget. This in the same year that Brough declared “a national emergency” in NT Aboriginal communities.

I didn’t finish it … but I did start it

And speaking of the NT intervention, five years on the policy that defined Brough’s time as minister has seen school attendance drop, suicide and self-harm rates double, and a more than doubling in reports of violent incidents. All the while the incarceration rate has soared to almost 90% of the prison population.

Brough has the luxury of not being able to be held accountable for the failings of the NT intervention — he was, after all, cast from office five months after it was launched. But Brough is responsible for the implementation of the intervention, and on that front things aren’t pretty. A parliamentary inquiry found its implementation was very poor — apart from alienating Aboriginal people and providing no emergency accommodation for anyone but police and soldiers, it caused widespread starvation among Aboriginal communities.

A $1 million porkie

When Brough told media this week that at no stage did he ever request extracts from Peter Slipper’s diary (despite text messages showing him requesting extracts from Slipper’s diary) he was simply adopting a practice that had worked well for him in the unaccountable world of indigenous affairs. Perhaps his most startling “deny deny deny” moment came when he walked out of a roundtable summit on Aboriginal violence and told media that someone in the meeting had revealed things were so bad in NT Aboriginal communities that $1 million in cash had been found in one remote town, the proceeds from the sale of drugs.

One million in cash? In a remote community? Really?  The story, of course, collapsed when it later transpired there was a drug bust in the NT, but it occurred in Darwin, the amount of cash involved was small, and the guy arrested was white, with no links to Aboriginal communities whatsoever.Black cash, white pork-barrel

One of Brough’s first acts as minister was to pinch $100,000 from the Aboriginals Benefit Account (which holds NT mining royalties on behalf of blackfellas) and provide it to the organisers of the Woodford Folk Festival, in Queensland. By law, ABA funds must be spent for the benefit of NT Aborigines. Brough wasn’t the first politician to pork-barrel with ABA funding but he was definitely the first one to do it outside NT. In case you were wondering, Woodford was in Brough’s electorate of Longman.

A pool of easy cash

The ABA proved irresistible to Brough while in office. His most spectacular raid was undoubtedly the $4 million he pinched to upgrade the Alice Springs Aquatic Centre, a pool owned by the Alice Springs town council. At the same time, Brough attacked traditional owners repeatedly for what he claimed was the irresponsible expenditure of mining royalty monies.

A land rights for whites

Even after leaving the job, Brough couldn’t let go. Having amended the NT Aboriginal Land Rights Act in 2006 to allow whitefellas to buy Aboriginal land, Brough was kicked out of Parliament, then boarded the the first flight to the Tiwi Islands where he tried to convince the Tiwis to enter into a joint venture with him and sign over their land. The deal was blocked by the Rudd government.

In true Brough style, he simply made up the media script to suit the political winds, telling The Australian newspaper on February 8, 2008 that he was “seeking to make a profit from — and lend a hand to — the islanders”, then later when the deal was shot telling the Sydney Morning Herald he never stood to “make one cent out of it”.

A demountable promise

Brough’s failings in Aboriginal affairs went beyond bad policy and media silliness. There was also plenty of inaction. The most stark occurred in 2006, after Brough promised more than 80 demountable buildings from the recently closed Woomera detention centre would be urgently installed in remote Aboriginal communities as emergency housing.

By the time he left office 18 months later, not one demountable had been installed. Instead, they sat rusting in an Alice Springs industrial yard until the Rudd government finally sent them north in 2008 … as emergency accommodation for asylum seekers on Christmas Island.

Today, the average number of Aboriginal people per dwelling in the NT remains at around 9.4 persons per dwelling, the same level it was when Brough entered office. This is despite the expenditure of at least one billion dollars on Aboriginal housing across the Territory over six years.

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Tracker managing editor

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